Property tax abatements are a controversial subject, and rightfully so. When Cleveland Heights residents dutifully pay our—notoriously high—property taxes, only to learn that neighbors purchasing units in some new developments will pay a mere fraction of their high-end home’s assessed value for up to a decade, we understandably bristle. It doesn’t feel like “equal treatment under the law”—a cornerstone of our democracy. It seems more like a subsidy to already wealthy people.
Heights Of Democracy
In a democracy, and yes, in a democratic republic, real victories small and large are only won when we, the people, stand up for our rights. Elected officials do not hand us such victories; we must claim them ourselves, over and over again. Participation in a democracy can be difficult, messy, inconvenient, frustrating and even boring. Often, we take three steps forward and two steps back (and sometimes, unfortunately, vice versa). But without our active involvement, there can be no democracy at all.
In the past several weeks we have seen dramatic examples of democratic action in response to crises, as high school students in Parkland, Fla., and public school teachers throughout West Virginia have stood up to authority and demanded action.
In our January column, we wrote about the history of Democracy Day in Cleveland Heights. Since we were writing for the Heights Observer, we kept our focus local. However, Robert Shwab’s letter to the editor in response to that column, published in the February issue, takes a national view. That letter contained some misconceptions, which several readers have asked us to address.
When times are prosperous, neighborhoods are harmonious, and public services are delivered without interruption, we assume municipal government is working well. If roads are crumbling, storm sewers are backing up, and crime seems to be increasing, our local government must be at fault, right?
Of course, it’s never that simple. When state and federal governments cut off major streams of funding, municipalities must scramble to fill the gaps by cutting services or raising taxes and fees, or often by a combination of both. Other than looking to increasingly scarce sources of local news, and consulting the city’s website, how can residents know what their elected and appointed officials are up to?
On Thursday, Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights City Council will convene the city’s fifth annual Democracy Day, and you, dear reader, are most cordially invited.
For the uninitiated, Democracy Day gives the public an opportunity to address council about how the political influence of corporate entities, added to obscene amounts of money spent in the political process, is degrading the democratic institutions of our city, our state and our nation. Following the hearing each year, a letter stating the reason for the event and summarizing citizens’ remarks is sent by council to our U.S. senators, our U.S. congress member, and the presidents of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House. That letter, the full text of the petition, plus written minutes and a video, can be viewed on the city’s website under Government, Archived Agendas and Minutes, Public Hearings.
Kathy Flora, a Cleveland Heights resident and immigration activist, shared these stories at the Nov. 1 meeting of Cleveland Heights City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee:
“Beatriz did not give a wide enough berth to a patrol car that was stopping someone else. She was . . . rapidly deported, leaving behind her grieving husband and four children. She was dumped over the Mexican border . . . in a notoriously dangerous city that preys on these vulnerable United States throwaways. She was robbed twice.
In a democracy, “We the People” are sovereign—not “we the judges,” “we the corporations,” or even “we the elected officials.” In a monarchy, the monarch is sovereign. In a democratic republic, the primary way most of us can express ourselves as a free and sovereign people is in the voting booth. No wonder Americans have fought to expand the franchise since the early days of the republic, when only white male landowners could vote.
Of course, voting is not only a right, but a responsibility, and that entails much more than getting to the polls. As voters we are responsible for learning as much as possible about candidates and issues before marking our ballots. With a corporate media pandering for the apparently unlimited sums of money now routinely spent on political ads, that’s a real challenge.
Proportionally, our votes count most in municipal elections, yet that’s exactly when Americans are least likely to cast a ballot. For a project “Who Votes for Mayor?” Portland State University researchers analyzed 23 million voting records to understand participation in the most recent local elections in 50 U.S. cities. Among their key findings:
- When municipal elections are held in even-numbered years, and especially when they coincide with presidential contests, voter participation is much higher than in off-year elections.
- In 10 of America’s 30 largest cities, turnout in municipal elections was less than 15 percent.
- Voters 65 and older are 15 times more likely to cast a local ballot than those between the ages of 18 and 34.
Most Cleveland Heights residents will never find themselves in municipal court, but its activities affect the safety and quality of life of all of us. We rely on it when a neighbor fails to bring her/his house up to code, when a speeding driver endangers pedestrians and other motorists, when a woman is threatened or beaten by her domestic partner.
On Nov. 7, Cleveland Heights voters will choose a replacement for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge A. Deane Buchanan, who is retiring due to age limits. Vying to succeed Buchanan are attorneys James Costello, Naydeen Hayden and DeAngelo Little.
Every human language is constantly changing, as people grapple with explaining, describing and understanding our world. This is a good thing; languages that never change die. The words we choose to label ideas, objects and people evolve, and our usage changes the words themselves.
Of course, as we are all aware, this is not strictly an organic process. Powerful players go to great lengths (with great means at their disposal) to change the meanings of words in ways both subtle and not.
For instance, we now have the “sharing economy.” This moniker is used to describe relatively new arrangements whereby people rent out space (in their homes, in the case of Airbnb) or charge for services (providing taxi service in their personal vehicles, as with Uber and Lyft). If this co-optation of “sharing” to denote commercial relationships sticks, it will be interesting to see how we eventually describe an act of generosity that does not involve payment.
An impressive group of nonprofit organizations, [many] dedicated to education and the arts, make their homes in the building that was once Coventry Elementary School, which was closed by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in 2007.
The first nonprofit to move in was Ensemble Theatre, in 2011; the most recent is Artful Cleveland, which leased space in July 2016, opened its doors in March 2017, and now provides studio space to 18 artists.
Many of us first learned about America’s Progressive Era in history classes. Lasting from the 1890s to the 1920s, it was drawing to a close when Cleveland Heights voters first approved a city charter in August 1921.
According to Marian J. Morton, in her book Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb: “Reflecting contemporary efforts to reform local government, the charter provided for nonpartisan elections of the city council and a city manager, who would be chosen by council for his [sic] professional expertise. The seven members of Cleveland Heights Council chose the mayor from their own ranks.”
Cleveland Heights could be about to undertake an interesting community conversation. CH City Council recently introduced legislation to appoint a charter review commission; the first since 1982. Among the many issues the commission may consider is the city’s form of government. We have been intrigued for some time by how our city’s government differs from those of neighboring suburbs.
From the local to the global, the ability of people to govern ourselves has been under assault for many decades. We can expect this to intensify for multiple reasons, including:
- Business corporations seeking huge profits by converting what once had been “public” to “private” (called privatization, though a more descriptive term would be “corporatization”), including traditional public assets such as water and sewer systems, roads, police and fire protection, airports, hospitals and schools.
- Individuals looking to increase their power, status and/or privileges by concentrating decision-making from many ("We the People" and government) to a few (their own) hands.
- Continual legal and constitutional definitions that further restrict and redefine “public” arenas as other “p” words: private, property, proprietary, privileged—and thus [place them] beyond the reach of public planning, shaping and evaluation.
- A national government that uses the excuse of “terrorism” to stifle dissent, intimidate dissenters and interrupt efforts of self-determination, even at the local level.
Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that corporate entities are “persons,” entitled to the constitutional rights originally intended solely for human beings. On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights held its fourth annual Democracy Day public hearing, created by the 2013 ballot initiative that called for a U.S. constitutional amendment stating, “Corporations are not people and money is not speech.”
In 2015, the city of Cleveland Heights moved to privatize its water department, but backed off in the face of community opposition. Despite that strong negative response, last summer the city privatized its building department, turning it over to SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company now owned by the private equity firm Riverside.
As state governments have squeezed funding to cities in recent years, the trend toward privatizing municipal services has accelerated. With the Republican sweep to control all branches of the federal government added to that party’s control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, pressure to privatize can only be expected to intensify.
In our July column, “Take Back the CH Building Department,” we outlined some specific concerns about privatizing a municipal service that has been a net revenue generator for the city for many decades. There may be time to reverse this: Cleveland Heights can withdraw from its three-year contract with SAFEbuilt on July 1, 2017, giving 120 days notice.
As the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes wraps up its 50th-anniversary year, we wish to reflect on the struggle that birthed it—a struggle that succeeded in preserving the wetland along the border of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and, indeed, both cities as we know them today.
Were it not for seven years of sustained effort by residents, elected officials and members of civic organizations, Cleveland’s near east side and adjacent suburbs would have been chopped into fragments by a heavily promoted system of freeways.
Announced in 1963, the [freeway] plan was the brainchild of Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert S. Porter, who also chaired the county Democratic Party. It consisted of four multi-lane, limited-access highways, all of them passing through some portion of Cleveland Heights.
We’ve enjoyed covering a variety of subjects during the first six months of this column. Readers—even a couple who haven’t agreed with us—have been generous and kind, in person and in writing. Many thanks to you all. This month, we’ll recap topics addressed to date in this column, and close with an appeal.
June: How “public” is public education? In our debut column, we highlighted testimony by two Cleveland Heights High School seniors at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing before Cleveland Heights City Council. Emma Schubert and Elijah Snow-Rackley, members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, presented evidence of the negative impact on CH-UH public schools of high-stakes testing, vouchers and charter schools. The Heights Coalition for Public Education continues its excellent work. Learn more about the coalition’s work, and sign its position statement at http://chuh.net/coalition/.
July: Take back the CH Building Department. Citing more-stringent state licensing requirements for building inspectors, the city of Cleveland Heights outsourced its building department last summer to SAFEbuilt, a corporation founded in Colorado that is now owned by private equity firm Riverside.
For 101 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has purchased water from the City of Cleveland and marked it up for resale to its residents and businesses. Most University Heights residents and businesses—with the exception of 700 UH households, which are part of the Cleveland Heights water distribution system—have paid Cleveland directly, without their city serving as middleman.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, Cleveland Heights will join 67 other direct service communities in Northeast Ohio, and the city will be out of the water business. Water bills, which have climbed over the past year to cover the Cleveland Heights Water Department’s growing deficit, will actually drop slightly. Rates will fall more sharply when the deficit is retired after seven years.
Things might have gone very differently had the community not come together to send a large corporation packing and keep an essential utility in public hands. We are just two of many who gave their time to this fight.
On Sept. 14, State Representatives Kent Smith (District 8) and Nickie Antonio (District 13) announced their primary co-sponsorship in the Ohio House of Representatives of a resolution calling on “legislators at the state and federal level and other communities and jurisdictions to support an amendment to the United States Constitution that would abolish corporate personhood and the doctrine of money as speech.”
Also present at the Sept. 14 press announcement, held in South Euclid, were 30 Move to Amend supporters, and State Senator Michael Skindell (District 23) who introduced an identical resolution, SR 187, in the Ohio Senate in 2015. State Rep. Janine Boyd (District 9), who represents Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Shaker Heights, is one of 11 co-sponsors of the House resolution, which has not yet been assigned a number. The text of SR 187 is here: http://bit.ly/2d3ywoj.
Why this resolution, and why now?
In mid-August, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) cut bus service and hiked fares again. If you use public transit, you are spending more time and more money getting where you need to go. Those who have a choice are less likely to choose RTA when it is inconvenient, expensive, and doesn't take them right to their destination. But, if you depend on public transportation, you probably already have greater difficulty getting to work, medical care, school and grocery stores.
The cost of a single bus or rapid transit ride has risen from $2.25 to $2.50, and will go up again, to $2.75, in 2018. Transfers are no longer available. A monthly pass went from $85 to $95, and in 2018 it will cost $105.
In Cleveland Heights and University Heights, RTA has shortened four bus routes:
We’re writing this column over the Fourth of July weekend. It seems a good time to reflect on the importance of the rule of law to our democratic system. Legislatures, which we elect, make law; court systems adjudicate that law. It is a highly imperfect system in which tragic mistakes are made daily, but we have not yet found a better method by which to govern ourselves. Our legal system operates from the municipal level up to the state and then the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court has the final word.
Or does it?
To shed light on this question, we reviewed some testimony presented to Cleveland Heights City Council at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing held last Jan. 21. Stewart Robinson and Dean Sieck addressed the threat that international trade mechanisms TISA and ISDS pose to municipalities like University Heights and Cleveland Heights.
On a warm May evening last year, about 230 Cleveland Heights residents packed a meeting room at the Community Center to oppose the city’s move to lease its water system to a private, for-profit corporation. When more than 200 people show up at a meeting on short notice, you can assume each of them represents many more who were unable to be there.
City council members listened to their constituents and went back to the drawing board. As a result, in January 2017, Cleveland Heights will join more than 70 Northeast Ohio communities that get their water directly from the Cleveland Water Department, resulting in substantial savings for residents and businesses.
Flash forward a year or so. Beginning this month, the city will contract out its building department operations to Colorado-based SAFEbuilt, a private, for-profit corporation.
Welcome to Heights of Democracy, a new column that will explore the meaning and practice of democracy locally, in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. We will tackle questions such as: How have grassroots efforts by Heights individuals and groups promoted civic involvement and democracy in our communities? How do neighbors work together to make life better for everyone? How do residents interact with our municipal governments? What local governance practices might elicit increased and more-effective citizen participation? How is our local autonomy enhanced or limited by state and federal policies and economic priorities? If you have topics to suggest that shed light on these issues, we’d love to hear from you.
For decades, Heights citizens have been passionately and effectively involved in our communities, often resisting powerful interests, from stopping the Clark and Lee freeways in the 1960s, to fighting racially based blockbusting in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The Heights Coalition for Public Education is a grassroots group working in this tradition, as two young members illustrated early this year.